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Kitsap Transit, non-profits turn attention to low-income bus riders

Gordy Byrd can hardly be bothered with Kitsap Transit's bus service anymore.

"When I need to get somewhere quick, I hitchhike," the Navy Yard City resident said over lunch at the Salvation Army Friday. "When I can just goof around, I take the bus."

Byrd is among a group of low-income Kitsap residents struggling to navigate the public transit system in recent years amid fare hikes, service cuts and the implementation of ORCA cards to replace paper transfers and cash fares.

Kitsap Transit is trying to help. After discontinuing free paper transfers for riders last year to encourage more widespread use of the ORCA card, the Kitsap Transit Board of Commissioners reinstated them last month and waived the fee to purchase an ORCA for those qualified for the low-income reduced fare.

Without the paper transfers, those without ORCA cards had to pay $2 for each leg of their bus trip, while those with the passes transfered for free. ORCA cards are only available in Central Kitsap at the Bremerton Transportation Center, or can be ordered by phone or online.

"Getting paper transfers reinstated was a great thing," said Major Jim Baker of the Salvation Army, who attended public meetings in recent months aiming to address complaints from low-income riders. The reinstatement of paper transfers was one success of those meetings, Baker said.

But problems persist for riders who rely on the system. Bremerton resident Mike Tyler said it has been easier to have paper transfers back, but their benefits are limited. He can only use them at the transfer stations and he must use them right away for the next bus. If he stops to run errands for half an hour, it's another $2 to catch the next ride.

"It's really hard to take public transportation," said Ruth Tumminello, who sat next to Tyler at the Salvation Army lunch. "It's ridiculously strenuous to use it."

Tumminello said if the bus system were better, she'd use it, but she takes a car instead. She said that local policy makers should help make public transportation easier if they're serious about reducing pollution and fostering a culture of mass transit use.

But the low-income population has faced other challenges aside from the ORCA cards and service cuts.

Patti Peterson, executive director of the Bremerton Foodline, said her clients need better transportation just to carry their food home.

"We kept seeing people who couldn't get here to get food or people who came here to get food and couldn't get home," she said.

Others can't get to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings due to reduced service or many in outlying areas can't ride into town, Baker said.

Kitsap Transit is working with non-profits to address the problems, said John Clauson, Kitsap Transit service development director. One goal is to get vans and small buses to agencies and churches so they can provide some of the service to their clients that Kitsap Transit cannot.

Some non-profits, such as the Kitsap Recovery Center, offer bus tokens to their clients for one-time use, or even loan pre-loaded ORCA cards so people can take the bus to the Bremerton Transfer Center and buy their own cards.

Baker said agencies can also apply for grants to hire a transportation coordinator if churches agree to help with a vanpool system to shuttle people between the food bank and their homes.

The paper transfers and waivers on low-income ORCA cards are reinstated until the end of the year, but the Transit board could extend them for longer, Clauson said.

Meanwhile, Kitsap Transit is seeking more locations to sell ORCA cards.

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